The Common Good

Learning How to Live Well

Editor's Note: The following is adapted from Justin's message last Sunday at The District Church in Washington, D.C., where he is associate pastor. Listen to "Learning How to Live Well" HERE.

I want to point out three things, regarding Paul's analogy of the fruit of the Spirit.

1. It's not something we can acquire by simply trying harder. Throughout Galatians, Paul dismantles the idea that all God wants is for us to try harder, to do more things, to count on our achievements to gain right standing with God. The fruit of the Spirit comes when the Spirit is living in us.

To state the obvious: if you want an apple, you grow it. You plant the seed, you water it, you care for it, you allow for whatever factors you have no control over — weather, for example — and you trust and hope that, in the right time, the tree will spring up, it will blossom, and it will bear the fruit you’re looking for. It takes time and effort, and even then, we have no guarantee of what, where, when, or how something is going to appear.

Have you ever heard someone pray for patience now? It kind of misses the point of what patience is, doesn’t it? I definitely think we should be praying for these things, but don’t expect them to be just placed in your lap — “Here’s the love for your neighbor you requested!" Absolutely, there are times when God pours out a supernatural measure of peace or joy on us, but more often than not, instead of just giving us those things, God gives us opportunities to learn those things — love, joy, gentleness — and he gives us his Holy Spirit to be with us at all times, including those times, and the Spirit brings peace and joy in the midst of those things, so thatwe can cultivate the life framework to sustain it all, to grow a healthy soul, where we learn how to weave body, mind, and spirit into one cohesive whole.

2. It's not just about you. Notice that the fruit of the spirit is a lot to do with how you interact with others.You don’t become more loving on your own — it’s about how you put others before yourself. It’s really easy to be peaceful on your own, especially if you understand peace as an absence of conflict but in the Bible, peace is about something bigger, something more holistic — shalom in the OT and eirene in the NT: it’s being in right relationship with God and with others. And as I alluded to earlier, patience is easy until you have to deal with people. We are not called to walk this on our own; we are not called to do lone-wolf Christianity; even Jesus himself didn’t do life on his own, but in community.

So maybe you’ve been trying hard to be a better Christian, to be better at doing what you think God wants you to do — but you’re tired and you’re feeling lonely. Maybe you've hesitated to get too involved with a church community because people are messy, relationships are transient, and you wonder if it’s really worth it. But if this is you, call it a hunch, but I think God might want you to find some folks to do life with. And this leads us into the next point.

3. It requires intentionality. This doesn’t negate point one about not trying harder — you can’t just acquire the fruit of the Spirit by trying harder. But part of the process is planting and watering. Just as with every aspect of life with God, there’s the part that God does — which is most of it, actually—and the part that we get to do; in 1 Corinthians, Paul says that we do our part but it’s God who makes things grow. Therefore, Paul writes to the church in Galatia:

Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. (5:25, MSG)

We can’t just relax and do what comes naturally — our natural inclination as sinful human beings is often to put self first, to avoid effort. Sometimes we have to get out of the way and let the Spirit do his thing — that requires intentionality. Other times we’ll have to choose to love or choose to forgive or choose to speak the truth, and as we continue to do so, we will cultivate habits and practices that change what comes naturally to us from choosing for ourselves to choosing for God and for others.

Actually, instead of trying harder, let’s look at it as training.

When I was younger, I had piano lessons.There were days when I’d love playing — mastering a new piece, or learning how to play the Pink Panther theme song — and there were days — most days! — when I felt lazy and unmotivated. I hatedpracticing for an hour a day, but that’s what my mom made me do; we even had a little booklet where I’d write down the times when I’d practiced, and if I took more than a five minute break, I needed to write that in there too.

After about eight years of lessons, of disciplined practicing, of taking exams — as soon as I was able to — I stopped. I considered myself free.

And I was, finally; only I was free in a new and better way — not just free from having to practice or to have lessons; but I was free to play notes without worrying about them, I was free to improvise because I’d acquired a familiarity with the keys.

Now, I didn’t learn to play the piano by being lazy (even when I felt like it) or watching lots of TV; I learned by practicing, by submitting myself to something that was making me better. And I thank God that my mom knew what was better for me than I did (and thanks to John Ortberg for highlighting that metaphor).

Paul uses the analogy of an athlete in training for the spiritual life in 1 Corinthians. Just as we don’t live healthy lives physically by eating junk food all the time, trashing our bodies with drugs or alcohol, lounging around on the couch all day, and not getting enough sleep; so also we don’t live healthy lives spiritually by treating others unkindly, being stingy with our possessions, refusing to care for those in need, putting our concerns first, or holding on to grudges. And, as we know, the physical and the spiritual aren’t as unrelated as the world likes to make them.

Wendell Berry has this beautiful phrase in one of his poems:

Practice resurrection.

Live your life as if Jesus is alive. Live your life as if Jesus meant everything he said, from “I am with you” to “Love your enemy” to “Do not be anxious about anything but seek first the kingdom of God” to “If you have something against someone, go make peace with them” to “Go and sin no more.” How do we do this, how do we practice resurrection?

It’s pretty straightforward, actually. It’s pretty ordinary. We worship God, and we do this in every moment and every aspect of our lives, we do this in the way that we live our lives:

  • we sprinkle the words we speak with grace;
  • we show patience and persevere when things get tough or when things don’t go the way we think they ought to;
  • we comfort those who mourn and stand with those who are going through tough times;
  • we go to work and treat people with respect;
  • we date and break up or date and get married, all the while treating the other person with honor and dignity as befits them as made in the image of God;
  • we seek justice, we love mercy;
  • we speak up for the oppressed;
  • we care for the poor and those afflicted by war and grief and loss and abuse;
  • we bring the healing of Christ into a broken world and into broken lives;
  • we hurt and cry and we bring it to God;
  • we laugh and celebrate and we bring it to God.

You see, our calling is not just to be saved by grace but to live by grace. It's not just to be saved by the stirring of the Spirit but to live in step with the Spirit; it's not just to say that we believe in God but to live as God did in Jesus.

So when we come back to that initial question of how we measure our spiritual growth, the fruit of the Spirit is one tell. It’s one indicator that we are choosing to use our freedom for Christ, that we are choosing to live life as we were intended to live life.

John Ortberg writes:

The main measure of your devotion to God is not your devotional life. It is simply your life. (The Me I Want to Be, p. 51)

How much sleep you get isn’t just to do with your body; it impacts how able you are to engage mentally, it impacts how patient you are when you’re with people that you might find irritating or frustrating. The kinds of thoughts you entertain don’t just affect your mind; they affect how you see people, how you treat people. And reading the Bible or spending time in prayer isn’t just an exercise in spirituality; for me, it’s about learning the vocabulary of God, so that his words and stories become my first language, and it’s about spending time hanging out with the One who made me, who knows me best, and who loves me as I am; and this comes out in everything I do.

Maybe you have sin in your life that you need to confess, that you need to bring before God. You need to stop hiding, and thinking that as long as nobody else knows about it, you’re okay; or that, actually, it’s not a big deal — you’ll turn things around when you want. But the truth of the matter is, you’re living a lie. If there’s anything we learned this weekend, it’s that life is fragile and evil is real — choices matter. If you’re living for yourself, if you’re enslaved by your appetites and your impulses, I’m telling you, it only leads to destruction — and God is saying to you, “It doesn’t have to be that way. Come back. Start over. Let’s do this together.”

Maybe you feel trapped; you’re stuck in this downward spiral or you’re surrounded by all of this trash, and you want to get out. You want to live life in the Spirit, but you don’t know where to begin or how to start. It’s easy: start by asking. Ask God for his help, ask God for his strength, ask God for his forgiveness and for his cleansing power to make all things new in you, ask God for his Spirit to live in you and form Christ within you. That’s how you start.

Or maybe you just needed to be reminded that what we do matters — that the body and the mind and the spirit are not separate but that we are one person, and that if we follow Christ, he has purchased us by his sacrifice on the cross for his own. Maybe God is pointing out that you’re doing something with or to your body that is impacting the rest of your life; or maybe you’re thinking things or looking at things or listening to things that are warping the way that you treat other people. Jesus rescued us, ransomed us, from the grasp of sin and death, and he offers us all life to the full, if we seek him, if we let his Spirit live in us.

Whatever it is, wherever you’re at, write it down — there’s something powerful about putting it in writing. And then share it with someone you trust, someone who loves you. Talk about life — talk about where you’re at and where you want to be. Pray together — ask God to bring the growth, to bring the change, to bring the life. And ask that person to hold you accountable; or if it’s someone here, keep each other accountable; because remember point 2: we were made to do life in community—that’s part of God’s design.

And by the grace of God, may we all live well.

Justin Fung is most definitely a city kid, having lived in Hong Kong; London, England (where he attended University College London and London School of Theology), and Pasadena, Calif., where he graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary in 2009. Prior to joining the staff of The District Church, he worked as the Policy and Outreach Assistant at Sojourners in Washington, DC. Read more from Justin on his blog, or follow Justin on Facebook or Twitter.

Images: The author in 2007 with his nephew, Matt, sitting at the piano where Justin learned to play as a child. Photo courtesy of Justin Fung. Image of grass and sunlight by Krivosheev Vitaly/Shutterstock. 

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